Have villa, will party

Attention, Elton John: the Cook Islands are open for weddings, parties, anything, writes Erin O'Dwyer.

A few years ago, Marrakesh emerged as the party destination of the minute.

The craze was to book out a riad - a high-walled villa built around an open courtyard within the old city, Medina - and fill it with your nearest and dearest for an extended long-weekend celebration.

Everyone from Kate Moss and Elton John to Jeremy Irons and the glamorous Beckhams celebrated birthday bashes in Marrakesh. The reason? The riads were cheap, it took little more than three hours to fly there from London and the weather was reliably gorgeous.

Sadly, it's not possible from Australia. It takes a long weekend just to get there.

In our own hemisphere, the Cook Islands are emerging as the next best thing. This year, a string of luxury exclusive-use villas have opened along Rarotonga's Muri Beach - touting themselves as exclusive destinations for weddings, parties, anything.

The idea is that you book one villa - or five in the same boutique complex - then choose from full catering, partial catering or self-catering. The staff take care of the rest. They can even plan your wedding.

"We are encouraging the exclusive events concept," says the general manager of Te Manava Luxury Villas and Spa, Marcis Nizow. "We believe this will be a strong growth market for us in future."

Te Manava has five luxury two- and three-bedroom villas that can sleep up to 25. The two-storey presidential villa has a well-equipped chef's kitchen, swimming pool and spacious living area opening up to a beachfront deck. The interior design is exotic - teak and rattan furniture, four-poster beds dressed with white linen and mosquito nets and vibrant art reminiscent of Gauguin's time in Tahiti.

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It's large enough to host a wedding ceremony, a sit-down dinner for 25 or a cocktail party for 40.

"We can organise private chefs to conjure up sumptuous, locally sourced feasts," Nizow says. "Wedding ceremonies in the Cook Islands are legally binding and recognised for most countries."

The concept, says Nizow, is simple. You pay a base rate for the accommodation and then select all manner of extras from an a la carte menu. Want daily housekeeping service? Done. Want Bvlgari luxury bathroom products? Check. Want a five-course dinner prepared on site by your own personal executive chef? Name the time and it's done. For a premium rate you can arrange for grocery shopping and child-minding services. (The villas usually have a no-kids rule but there are exceptions.)

"We have an events department that is dedicated to helping organise all aspects of your event," Nizow says. "It's a one-stop shop service."

A little further along Muri Beach is Rumours Luxury Villas and Spa. The beachfront villas come with an in-house spa and trained beauty therapist. There are three villas - all two-bedroom, two-bathroom with designer Italian fittings and marble floors. The ultimate villa has a home cinema with projection system, 110-inch flat-screen television and framed posters of Hollywood's golden era.

Just next door is Te Vakaroa Villas - an impressive two-storey property with six villas set in tropical gardens.

These villas cater for up to 18 guests and its three-bedroom villas have super king-size beds, three bathrooms and two ensuites. There's Piper-Heidsieck champagne waiting for you on arrival and a generous basket of local coffee and other treats. On top of all this, a private chef serves food by the pool.

The exclusive-use villas are largely thanks to Kiwi investments, with Australians and New Zealanders making up the majority of Te Vakaroa's visitors.

The Cook Islands comprise 15 islands spread over 2.2million square kilometres, north-east of New Zealand. There are lush volcanic islands and small coral atolls, all fringed with pristine lagoons and reefs. Activities include diving, kayaking and deep-sea fishing. Of course, you can also spend your time lying on the white sand beaches.

Despite some 100,000 visitors a year to the main island, Rarotonga, it is largely unspoilt by tourism. An influx of well-travelled Cook Islander ex-pats has injected vim and vigour into the tourist scene.

The food, in particular, is surprisingly good. Like other parts of the Pacific, there is an abundance of fish but a refreshing absence of taro, plantain and yam. The cuisine is modern Pacific Rim - a mix of Asian, Indian and French influences, which means anything from coconut crab curry, to slow-cooked lagoon octopus on rice pilaf, to a Moroccan-spiced Mahi-mahi.

The Muri Beach villas are within walking distance of a number of excellent dining options. Tamarind House is the best, with a menu of taro leaf and roast pumpkin lasagne, Pacific seafood ragout and Thai fish curry with mint sambal.

The Tamarind House is one of a few heritage homes on the island - built to house the managers of the Union Steamship Company in 1909 and later home to the British consul.

The writer was a guest of the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Air New Zealand flies twice weekly to Rarotonga International Airport via Auckland. For more information see the-cook-islands.com. or cookislands.travel.

Staying there

Te Vakaroa Villa, Muri Beach Rarotonga. Rates from NZ$695 ($580) a night, tevakaroavillas@ villavacations.co.ck, see tevakaroavillas.com. Rumours Luxury Villas and Spa, Muri Beach, Rarotonga. Rates from NZ$850 a night. info@rumours-rarotonga.com. rumours-rarotonga.com. Te Manava, Muri Beach, Rarotonga. Rates from NZ$850 a night. +682 20427 temanava.com.

Further information

See cook-islands.com.